Question: Balancing candor and confidentiality in staff communications.

Our company manages a diverse group of small subsidiaries. We recently finished a successful divestiture of a subsidiary business at a good valuation.

Given our location, and the time it took to go through several prospective buyers... there was quite a bit of speculation about the sale.

Our management team, however, constantly sidestepped or denied any such interest. While it was a good way of retaining talent and valuation, this has left a sense of distrust and insecurity in our current employees.

What would have been a better way of handling communications during this sale? How do we remedy the current anxiety?

5 Expert Insights

Good that you're asking the question. Conducting a "post-mortem" on how the management team handled their communications during the sale is an excellent discussion to have. So, too, for considering how best to remedy the current anxiety. My suggestion: Add them to the agenda of your next management team meeting. Better yet, make them the only items on the agenda for your next management team meeting.

In today's environment this is a common question employees have..."are you going to sell the company?" The question behind the question is "Will I still have a job?" Here is what we communicated to employees in every quarterly town hall meeting and in monthly company email updates "We run the company like we will keep it forever or sell it tomorrow".  We told the employees our goal was to our customers, employees and shareholders and all expected a return on their investment. We communicated  we were focused on running the company but we also had an obligation to review serious offers.

When the time came when we had buyers. We were open that we were meeting with investors. As you know a meeting does not turn into a sale and there is a non-disclosure in place with any of these discussions.

You asked two questions.  First it is possible to be honest and open with your employees without revealing information that is not appropriate to reveal.  The earlier responses (above) address this issue quite well.

Once early in my management career when I felt senior management was not being honest and open, one of my early mentors pointed out: “The executive that is honest because honesty is the best policy is not honest.  He is just very shrewd!”  Honesty and openness (“transparency”) are prerequisites for trust.

Second, the distrust you observe is much more than “anxiety.”  It will be devastating – and deeply embedded in the culture – if not effectively addressed, sooner rather than later.  Distrust will not go away, It will move underground and contaminate all relationships between the employees and senior management.

Trust cannot be “earned.”  It can only be “given.”  It is a fragile gift.  Trust is a precious, living gift to be nurtured, protected and honored.  Creating the environmental ecosystem (working environment) where the employees again give senior management the gift of trust is an opportunity to create a more aligned, engaged and productive organization than existed before.  “There are no mistakes, only lessons.  No failures, only research.”

Hi there,
there are some great ideas around the topic already. Here's one I would throw into the mix to repair some of the damage.

Be transparent in the communication about the fact that there was no communication. i.e.

"We realize in reflecting back on how this transition went that we didn't communicate enough about what was going on. Some things we could tell you and some things we couldn't but it never works to ignore that you have questions. We apologize for the level of uncertainty you experienced and in future we promise to tell you all we can, provided it is something we actually can tell you about without other consequences."

You have received some good advice.  In doing it again ... or next time ... bringing the leadership team together and establishing the common voice and message that you will convey to the employees is a great first step.  And ... I believe it is very naive although not unusual, for leaders presume that employees automatically 'buy' whatever is put out there for them.  In fact, they or at least some of them see right through the distorted answers and all it takes is 'some' to create a undercurrent that delivers the message of a need to seek employment elsewhere.

If you hold your employee base to a high level of intelligence you will find that being forthright in what you share will bring greater success and greater retention than believing you are fooling them ... which sends the unintentional message and finds many believing they need to move on.  

And by the way, I am a BIG believer in reviewing steps you took after the fact.  Chances are you will be in this situation again and reviewing what went well and what didn't is a valuable way to avoid errors and doing it better next time.